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BRYANT HITS, NUGGETS FALL KOBE'S NEAR TRIPLE-DOUBLE SPARKS LAKERS LAKERS 106, DENVER 98.

Byline: Howard Beck Staff Writer

Kobe Bryant has found a favorite new sparring partner. Actually several. They're called the Denver Nuggets and they have become regulars at absorbing Bryant's deadly repertoire of quick jabs and devastating body blows.

Bryant single-handedly knocked out the Nuggets in a 35-point Lakers rout last month and for an encore, he nearly dropped his first career triple- double on them Monday night.

Igniting a second-half comeback from 17 points down, Bryant led the Lakers to a 106-98 victory at Staples Center that had the Nuggets looking dazed and wobbly.

The final Kobe tally: 29 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds, with three blocked shots and an immeasurable decibel level to serve as the sound track.

It was reminiscent of Bryant's 30-point explosion Jan. 10, when the Lakers last beat the Nuggets, and everyone wondered if it was inspired by the presence of Michael Jordan. His Airness wasn't in the house this time, and Bryant finally divulged the true source of his fire versus the Nuggets.

``John Lucas,'' Bryant said, referring to the Nuggets' assistant coach.

``I've known John Lucas (since high school). He gave me my first opportunity to play as a professional basketball player in Philadelphia when he was coach of the Sixers. And every time we play against them, he has something to say. Always. Even during shootaround, talking trash, talking trash,'' Bryant said.

Bryant isn't a high school player trying to prove himself against the pros anymore, though. And he looked every bit the NBA All-Star as he led the Lakers to their second straight win - their first consecutive victories since the streak ended Jan. 14 at 16 games.

Shaquille O'Neal benefited from Bryant's show, as the receiving end of several assists, and finished with a game-high 35 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.

A near double triple-double.

It didn't always look as good as that sounds.

The Nuggets, paced by 24 points from Antonio McDyess and 18 points from ex-Laker Nick Van Exel, led from early in the second quarter until the fourth.

But Bryant got eight points in the third quarter to start the comeback and 11 more in the fourth to finish it. He was good on three straight 3-point tries in the final quarter - hitting two of them on feeds from O'Neal - as the Lakers pulled within three points. Rick Fox hit another 3-pointer, and the game was tied for the first time since the first half, 87-all.

As usual, Bryant maybe tried a little too much. He tried a fourth 3-pointer, a wild pull-up, and Jackson promptly sat him for four minutes.

``I told him it was a heat check,'' Bryant said with a laugh. ``I'm fine with (the benching). It was a bad shot. I knew it was a bad shot.''

Said coach Phil Jackson: ``I vacillate between wanting to spank him and wanting to pat him on the back. And sometimes it ends up about the middle. But he had a wonderful game in many respects. And in other respects as a guard, there's a certain amount of resistance and patience that you have to have in a game like that, and a feel for it. He's still learning that feel.''

O'Neal did the rest, scoring six points down the stretch to finish with 10 in the final quarter. Fox scored eight of his 10 points in the fourth and played the last 17 minutes of the game, all in place of Glen Rice.

Thus, Jackson continued a recent trend of sitting Rice, thesubject of constant trade rumors.

``We had to make some personnel decisions about players out there, and Rick and Derek (Fisher) came off he bench in the second half and gave us a big boost,'' Jackson said. ``Rick's playing right now with a lot of good decisions and shooting the ball well. He's hot. And his defense has been solid, so it just seemed like the right matchup. We had to get some defense out on the court, a little more quickness, strength.''

CAPTION(S):

photo, chart

Photo: Kobe Bryant dribbles through the lane on his way to a 29-point, 11-assist night.

Tom Mendoza/Staff Photographer

Chart: Game recap
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 8, 2000
Words:697
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